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Working with Local Communities to Conserve Colombia’s Pacific Coast

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This piece comes to us from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). To honor Women’s History Month, WCS and Nature are sharing stories of nature and conservation.


Fishing monitoring in DRMI Encanto de los manglares del Bajo Baudó. Photo credit: @Javier Silva.

The Colombian Pacific is a wonderful environment that offers inexhaustible sources of inspiration for work in marine conservation. From a very young age, I visited the beautiful landscapes of the Colombian Pacific and I remember that I was always amazed to see its extensive beaches, the cliffs with their large number of crabs and snails, as well as the beautiful mangroves and the vast sea.

As an undergraduate student, I had the opportunity to explore other places on the Pacific coast and start to understand the close relationship between coastal communities and natural resources. At this point in my life, I began to have a great interest in marine and aquatic fauna, especially mammals, sharks and rays.

Working with river dolphins (undergraduate thesis) and humpback whales (volunteer and tour guide), I had two great women mentors who inspired my vocation as a researcher—Maria Claudia Diazgranados and Lilian Florez.

Discussion on piangua management strategies with piangueras of Orpúa. Photo credit: @Fernando Mosquera Concosta.

In my early years as a biologist, I co-founded a local non-governmental organization. With my colleagues, I worked to help fill some of the many information gaps that existed in the country about sharks and rays. We studied aspects of the taxonomy, distribution, reproductive biology, diet, fisheries, and production chain of these species while understanding their importance for the economy and food security of fishing communities.

Subsequently, I focused my doctoral research on assessing the vulnerability of a stingray species frequently caught by small-scale shrimp trawlers as bycatch. I tried to address how to propose management measures based on life-history traits and demographic analysis of the species.

Thanks to my regular interaction with local communities, I began to understand the decisive importance of their participation to achieve the conservation goal of sustainable use, as well as the essential function of communicating research results with them.

In October 2017, I began my career at WCS as a marine leader and had my initial discussions about what I’d be doing with my managers and co-workers. I understood the great challenge and opportunity that we faced in addressing marine conservation issues from the perspective of sustainable use of marine resources and the well-being of communities. I now faced the personal challenge of shifting my focus from conservation research to action.

Participation in a NPoA Sharks-Colombia Workshop (2020). Photo credit: @Squalus Foundation.

Over the past four years, I’ve had the opportunity to go to new and beautiful places on the Colombian Pacific Coast, full of natural and cultural richness and friendly people. Moreover, we have been able to ensure that a community participation approach underpins the marine protected area (MPA) declaration process and the formulation of management plans in these areas

Three new areas have recently been declared as Integrated Management Districts—that is, protected areas where the sustainable use of natural resources is allowed. In these collective territories, the economy and food security depend on the use of natural resources through different activities such as forestry, subsistence hunting, agriculture, fishing, and piangua (ark clam) extraction.

These last two activities have been the focus of our projects in these marine coastal areas. Specifically, piangua-harvesting is an activity that consists of extracting this invertebrate from the mangrove roots in order to sell it or for family consumption. This arduous activity, carried out mainly by women, is experiencing difficulties driven by a decrease in abundance due to overexploitation of the ark clams and the logging of mangroves.

That is why WCS—together with the environmental authority and the community council—is working with women from the “Encanto de los manglares del Bajo Baudó” MPA so that they can lead their own piangua conservation efforts.

Piangua monitoring with piangueras of the DRMI Encanto de los Manglares del Bajo Baudó. Photo credit: Diego Amariles/WCS.

To achieve this, we have accompanied the piangueras (women who collect pianguas) into the mangroves to understand how they carry out the ark clam-harvesting, to monitor the resource with them, to teach them the importance of the mangroves and the allowed size of the piangua (5 cm), and to train them in the recognition of sex and the different stages of maturity.

We are also teaching the piangueras how to use the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) for the month-to-month collection of data and the importance of monitoring and data for decision making, based on an adaptive management approach.

With this information gathered in a participatory way, the piangueras have themselves defined the appropriate management measures for this clam resource and fulfillment of those measures through community agreements. These actions have enabled women to have a recognized role in their communities as active promoters of change towards conservation, sustainable development, and their own livelihoods.

Sharing and learning with piangueras during their activity. Photo credit: Paola A. Mejia/WCS.

This integration of gender equality in conservation initiatives will be key to the success and sustainability of management measures on the Colombian Pacific coast. We will continue working with faith that all of this effort will have a positive impact on the communities by improving their livelihoods while protecting the resource and the mangroves.

Thanks to WCS, I have been able to put a grain of sand towards conservation and the well-being of women and local communities on the beautiful Colombian Pacific Coast. There is still a long way to go, but I am hopeful that this grain will grow to a beautiful pearl as we dedicate ourselves to securing it in this and the other marine-protected areas in which we work.

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